Farmers market sets up shop online during pandemic

Westport Farmers Market in Westport, Conn., was co-founded 15 years ago by Paul Newman and is normally closed this time of year. But with the arrival of the global coronavirus pandemic, statewide stay-at-home orders, a strained food supply chain, runs on groceries and social distancing requirements, executive director Lori Chochran-Dougall approached her board about opening early by accepting exclusively online offers.

"It's amazing how people used to not really like the sweet potato with all the eyes on it and right now they'll take anything," said Lori, who serves as the only full-time employee of the market, which she has run for the last decade.

"From mid-March to middle of May, this is our downtime," she said. "This is when farmers are sowing the ground and we're really getting all our programming in place."


"Farmers were already starting to stress about how they were going to get food out this spring and summer," she said.

By allowing customers—400 of them one week in late April—to place orders online, the Westport Farmers Market not only provides its selection of farm-grown edibles to shoppers who are maybe struggling to find the foods they want at crowded grocery stores ("we're lucky that we have some hydroponic growers so we do have greens," Lori said) but also provides its 50 or so small farmers an economically feasible model to sell what they make, raise and grow.

"If the grocery stores go down, we all have access to food because of these people," Lori said.

Stephanie Maynard and her husband raise 180 head of Angus cattle, high-grade Berkshire pork and free-range chicken, they sell brown eggs and grow a variety of produce, all on more than 1,600 acres in Roxbury and Woodbury, Conn.

"Farm markets have been our primary source of retail," she said.


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Stephanie explained how limiting an in-person farmers market to groups of 10 or 25 shoppers (as states might require later this summer) won't allow operations like her Ox Hollow Farm to make the money it needs, or would during a regular market day. 

"There might be 1,200 to 20,000 people coming through any of these given markets," she said.

"If it's 50 people at a time that can come into a space, we still will be operating in this [online] model," Lori said. "And if I had to guess, I'd say we'll be in it all summer."

That would make this normally quiet period of spring an ideal time to perfect this no-on-site-shopping-allowed, Thursday-pickup-only model, before harvest time.

"Not just are you supporting my family and our farm and our little area," Stephanie said.

"We're hoping this also gives a playbook out to other farmers markets," Lori said.